Crucifixion by Romans

Crucifixion was designed as the ultimate in slow, painful and humiliating deaths.

Crucified naked

Naked like this, but with a lot of blood

Aspects of the punishment included that prisoners were often required to carry their  crossbeam to the place of execution for it to be attached to its stake or tree; that they were crucified completely naked (more humiliating for a Jew than a Celt, and for a woman than a man – though female crucifixions were rare); that, naked, they would undoubtedly empty their bladder and bowels over themselves in front of the crowd who came to watch.

The prisoner was tied or nailed by the wrists to the crossbeam. The feet were often nailed to the upright, one one each side, at the ankle. Frequently the prisoner had a block of wood attached to the stake or tree for them to sit on, with a spike sticking up from it to magnify their pain.

The execution could last for hours or days, depending on the weather, the prisoner’s condition (such as loss of blood from having the skin scourged off his back) and whether the legionaries guarding the crucifixion were in a hurry to go back to camp. Some ways for the soldiers to hasten death were to break the prisoner’s legs with an iron bar, to run a spear up through the stomach and chest, or even to light a smoky fire below him to asphyxiate him.

Once dead, the body was normally left in place as a warning to others, while it was eaten by crows and buzzards.

The punishment was in use by Greeks, Persians and others before the time of the Roman Empire. The Romans originally used it only for slaves, but then extended it to pirates and enemies of the state. The punishment was forbidden under Jewish religious law, which only allowed execution by stoning, burning, strangling, or decapitating the victim.

So Jesus was not crucified at the wish of Jewish authorities, or of the Jewish people. He was crucified by the Romans as an enemy of the state, which he had declared himself to be by claiming the kingship of Israel while entering Jerusalem. The Romans tacked a sign above his head reading “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”, to show what they thought of his ambitions.

Jesus was crucified between “two thieves”, but you didn’t get crucified for mere theft. However “thief” and “robber” were synonymous with “Zealot”, “sicariot” (or knifeman) and “insurgent” to the forces of the Roman Occupation. It is reasonable to assume that the “thieves” were leaders in the armed wing of the Zealot resistance – but not as prominent as Jesus, and not part of his cadre of preachers.

Jesus was stripped naked, and the legionaries diced for his clothing. He was scourged: flogged 40 times with a short cat-o’-nine-tails , each tail ending in a lead ball to lacerate and strip the skin off. He was made to carry his crossbeam to the Place of Skulls outside the city, but he collapsed on the way. After perhaps nine hours of crucifixion he called out “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?” Then he called out again, and died. Joseph of Arimathea negotiated with – or bribed – the Romans to be allowed to take Jesus down for burial, but first the Romans ran a spear up through the corpse to make sure it was dead – this was common practice, and only a dribble of blood and a watery fluid (presumably from the pericardium around the heart) came out.

And that was it. The end of just one of a 200-year series of attempts to oust the Romans from Israel. But preachers and knifemen didn’t have much chance against the Roman Empire.

Calendar Conflicts

Under the Roman Occupation, the Jews continued to use their religious calendar for everyday use. Six days were just called ‘First day’, ‘Second day’, etc, with only the seventh day having its own name, and being special: the Sabbath. (The origin of the word is probably Babylonian, and dates from that Exile.) That gave them the seven-day week with a regular weekend that is so familiar to us that we tend to think of it as universal. As no work, including cooking, could be done on the Sabbath, the 6th day was the logical one for major food-shopping and food-preparation.

The Romans had neither weeks nor weekends. They had, as we do today, months of varying length that did not coincide with the moons, but they did not subdivide them into weeks. Instead, individual days were deemed lucky or unlucky, workdays or holidays, or holidays for some people but workdays for others. And there were plenty of other complications that required priests to post calendars in public places to tell people the quality of the individual days of the next year. The Kalends (first day of the month), Nones (fifth or seventh, depending on the month) and Ides (thirteenth or fifteenth) had names as being particularly important, and the other days were counted forwards or backwards from them, but you couldn’t tell much about them just from that fact.

This would be a very small weekly market, even for a village.

But the Romans did have a regular market day, standardized throughout the Empire, once every eight days. This was a legal requirement; and no legislation could come into effect until it had been publicly posted for three consecutive markets.

So, throughout the Roman province of Palestine, once every seven market days no practicing Jews would show up because it was their Sabbath. Farmers wouldn’t sell food, craftsmen couldn’t buy supplies and wouldn’t sell products, and neither Jews or Romans could buy anything for the next week. Then each side blamed the other for being inflexible.

Any Jews who chose to attend the market on those days were seen as renouncing their religion and becoming traitors to both their people and God – and the Zealots had no more qualms about killing them than about killing Romans.

Any Jews who refused to perform normal market duties on the Sabbath were seen as resisting the Roman attempt to bring uniformity, progress and stability to the whole Empire, and risked being treated as enemy combatants.

The attempt to impose the Roman calendar on the Jews was one of the key, and constant, flash-points, from the time of the Roman conquest in 63 BCE to the destruction of Jewish life in Palestine after the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE.

It makes a useful early clarification of the different worldviews of the occupiers and the occupied in ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’.

Those pro-choice Romans

Romans kept the children they wanted, and wanted the children they kept

Romans couldn’t understand why Jews, Germans and Egyptians never ‘exposed’ children. I.e. why they never drowned or abandoned newborns that were unplanned, surplus, illegitimate or deformed – but instead decided to raise them all.

The Romans considered this very inefficient management. Contraception, abortion and infanticide were all legal, within limits. After a birth the midwife placed the newborn on the ground, and it was the father’s choice to pick it up or to abandon it. Abandoned babies were then exposed in a public place where – if they were lucky – someone else would pick them up. A newborn wasn’t a true person until it was named at 8 or 9 days.

Why keep a baby you couldn’t afford, or didn’t want? If later you wanted one, you could always buy or adopt; just as, if you wanted a particular adult, you could always adopt them as your child or arrange a marriage to bring them into the family.

Surely your family should be managed at least as carefully as your farm animals?

Why a Menorah?

The cover illustration for “The Gospel According to the Romans” comes from the Arch of Titus in Rome. (Actually, it comes from a Tel Aviv museum’s reconstruction of that part of the Arch.)

The Arch of Titus commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the looting of its treasures in 70 CE, during the Great Revolt that ended with Masada. This was 35-40 years after the death of Jesus, but part of the pattern of a major uprising against the Roman Occupation once a generation or so, and the Legions crushing it.

Treasures from the Temple in Jerusalem being looted by the Legio X Fretensis under Titus

The Roman attitude towards Palestine was that it was a strategically important province: not just at the crossroads of Mesopotamia and Egypt, not just part of the trade routes with India, but essential to prevent piracy and lawlessness in the eastern Mediterranean. So the Romans were there to stay. If the Jews were going to be quiet, the Empire would farm them for taxes while providing commerce and growth and infrastructure. If the Jews were going to be troublesome, the Legions would loot and pillage while suppressing uprisings. Standard Roman practice.

“The Gospel According to the Romans” puts Jesus into this context of Roman occupation and constant Jewish resistance. You’d be surprised how different that makes the Gospels look!

Jewish Monotheism, Roman Polytheism. Atheism.

It is amusing to think that many religious Jews and Romans saw each other as atheists.

The Jews felt that polytheism showed that Romans had no concept of the supreme Creator, and were therefore atheists.

The Romans felt that Jews acknowledging only their one tribal god showed that Jews had no concept of the rich and diverse spiritual nature of the universe, and were therefore atheists.

So it goes.

Socrates – bearded old dude who lives on in libraries and T-shirts

The Jews had a point: the Roman gods didn’t look like they were capable of creating a planet, yet alone an entire Universe. They weren’t an orderly or spiritually uplifting bunch.

The Romans had a point: the Jews were claiming that there was only one God, and that He was their tribal god, and no one else’s counted. That’s a no-win situation for anyone but Jews.

Presumably a real atheist, whether Roman or Jew, didn’t give a damn either way.

Contextualizing Jesus

Churches and Sunday Schools teach the Old Testament, the New Testament, the description of the Temple, the differences between Sadducees and Pharisees, food, clothing, etc. But no mention of the Romans.

Jesus opposed those who didn’t follow the Jewish Law, and the Romans executed him

High school Ancient History teaches the rise of the Roman Empire and its acquisition of all the provinces around the Mediterranean. But no mention of Jesus.

This is like telling the story of Osama Bin Laden without mentioning the Americans – and then telling the story of the Western occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan without mentioning Islam or religious insurgents!

Historians are apparently scared of dealing with historical realities that bear upon the creation of religions; the talking snakes and virgin births and going up to heaven in chariots don’t mesh coherently with the sociopolitical narrative, so historians ignore them.

And priests and theologians are equally scared of contextualizing their stories, because the stories only make sense if they exist as detached fairytale bubbles. Their stories are self-referential, detached from reality, about a preliterate world where gods and angels walk the earth and perform magic, where demons are the cause of illness or misfortune, and where life will somehow continue after the body wears out and dies.

But Jesus was a person in a particular time and place. He was a religious Jew, an acknowledged rabbi, living under the military occupation of an idolatrous, pig-eating Western superpower – the Roman Empire. The Romans had been controlling, taxing (and sometimes looting) Palestine for a hundred years, in the face of major uprisings once a generation. When you view the words and actions of Jesus in this light, a fresh and powerful picture appears, clearly hostile to the Romans.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE ROMANS explores the life of Jesus within this historical context.

Chapter 1, Notes

Chapter 1 of “The Gospel According to the Romans” introduces key factors regarding the social structure and day-to-day environment of 1st century Palestine: Palestine was a province of the Roman Empire and, as such, was under the military occupation of a Roman Legion. The figurehead ruler might be a local king, but real power rested with the Roman governor.

Palestine was unique in the Empire in having only one local god, and this god was considered superior to all other gods, to the extent that Jews were not allowed to worship any but Yahweh. Normally the Romans just added the local gods to their own pantheon and expected the natives to allow the worship of Roman gods alongside their own. This was not acceptable to religious Jews.

So the local leaders had to choose between four approaches to the Romans: that of the Sadducees – active collaboration, favored by the wealthy, powerful and venal; of the Pharisees – resentful acquiescence while ignoring sacriligious Roman factors like pigs, shaved chins and graven images; of the Essenes – retreat from Roman influence into remote, self-sustaining and traditional communities; and of the “Fourth Philosophy”, the Zealots – armed resistance, assassination, robbery, and province-wide uprisings.

But not all Jews were religious. The novel’s protagonist, Matthew Levi, was born and raised in another province, Syria, and has long been friends with individual Romans. Chapter 1 sees him interviewed by the governor, Pontius Pilate, for a position as tax collector in Capernaum. As the Roman agent in a small town he will also be expected to send reports about any anti-Roman sentiment or activities he hears of. In effect, any tax collector will be a spy.

Reactivating the blog

Most of my writing since I finished ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’ has been poetry, some of which has spilled through into this blog. My intent now is to return to the novel and post it here, chapter by chapter. I also hope to review the themes in it as they were developed, as a sort of study guide.

Because the book has a serious purpose: by contextualizing the story of Jesus within the sociopolitical realities of the Roman Empire and its occupation of Palestine, to take all the miracles, magic and mysticism out of the life of the man. Pretty clearly he was a Jewish fundamentalist with a Messianic dream, who failed in his attempt to capture and cleanse the Temple of foreigners and other impurities.

The book follows the structure of the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke, which tell essentially the same story – but from the point of view of the Roman tax agent “Saint” Matthew Levi who was recruited by Jesus but, in this novel, remains loyal to Rome… allowing us to see everything from opposing points of view.

History as Irony

Into the land for which the Jews
A thousand years before
Had killed and burned to take,
Jesus was born.

In towns controlled by Rome –
Grafting their multicultural odd gods
Onto Rome-cleansed, Rome–straightened cities –
Jesus played.

Walking four miles from Nazareth
To Sepphoris with Joseph at age ten
To work and help his father build another
Roman Jewish palace,
Jesus toiled.

In the uprisings led by Judas of Galilee
When Joseph and two thousand Jews were killed,
Crucified by the Romans, Sepphoris burned,
Jesus escaped.

In hills and deserts outside Rome’s control,
Studying prophecies and hefting swords,
Jesus preached Israel purged of Rome.

Outside the shining city on the hill,
The Passover uprising crushed by Rome,
Flanked by two Zealots, heads of the revolt,
Jesus, King of Jews, was crucified.

Preventing further fundamentalists
Leading attacks against High Priest and Rome,
Saul hunted Jesus’ Messianic dregs.

Seeing an opportune new power base,
Mixing old Jewish myths in a fresh blend
With Mithras, Isis – a One God for all –
Saul/Paul created Christ as a new God.

Both fundamentalist and Paulist Jews
Denying the Emperor’s divinity –
Disrupting commerce, peace and government –
Nero burned Jewish Christians, and
Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple, and
Hadrian deported all the Jews
From Palestine, scattering Christians and Jews
Throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

Jews kept their heads down. Christians evangelized,
Spread through the powerless – slaves, women, poor,
Criminals and the lowest army ranks.

Seeing an opportune new power base,
Constantine changed Rome’s faith.

Controlling now (in part) the Emperor,
Popes ruled the West from Rome, built palaces,
And persecuted Jews.

(Jesus gives no opinion, being dead.)
Published: Ambit 211, UK, January 2013

Rome Thrived on Profits from War

It is important when reading about the life of Jesus to remember that he lived under the rule of an occupying force whose motives for the occupation were profit from pillage, and profit from exploitation, and profit from trade. There was no respect for (or understanding of) the Jewish religion.

In Taken at the Flood by Robin Waterfield, Republican Rome (i.e. the culture of the 500 years immediately prior to the time of Jesus) is clearly shown as a warrior society. Warfare was one of the principle sources of income for both the country and the generals and soldiers that fought those wars:

“Republican Rome was a warrior society, then, from the aristocracy downwards (except that the very poorest citizens were not allowed, yet, to serve in the army). Every year between 10 and 15 percent of the adult male population was under arms, and in times of crisis more: an incredible 29 percent at the height of the Hannibalic War in 213. And everyone benefited, not just from the booty and spoils, but from the intangible benefits of security and the city’s increasingly formidable reputation. Over time Rome became adorned with visible reminders of military victories: temples built in fulfillment of a vow taken in wartime; elaborate statues of conquerors, inscribed with blunt reminders of their victories. ‘I killed or captured 80,000 Sardinians,’ boasted one general on a prominently displayed inscription, and this was not untypical. Most monumental inscriptions dating from the middle Republic — and by the end of the second century the city was crowded with them — focused largely or wholly on military achievements. The qualities the Romans most admired in a man were best developed and displayed in warfare.
Altar Domitius Ahenobarbus — detail showing the equipment of a soldier in the manipular Roman legion (left). Note mail armour, oval shield and helmet with plume (probably horsehair). 

“In short, a state of war was not only considered ‘business as usual’ in Rome by the entire population, but was not considered undesirable, especially by Rome’s aristocratic leaders. It is far harder to recover the motives of the ordinary soldier, but several of Plautus’s plays (third/second centuries) suggest that the attraction of warfare for them too was profit. It was bound, then, to be relatively easy for the Romans to go to war; and it was equally easy to present the wars as justified self-defense or protection of weaker neighbors. Slight pretexts could be taken as serious provocation. This is not to say that Rome was the aggressor in every war it fought, but the facts remain: Rome was almost continuously at war in the early and middle Republic (500-150 BCE, in round numbers), every opportunity for war that the Senate offered was accepted by the people of Rome, and the benefits were recognized by all.”

As a religious Jew, Jesus naturally rejected this attitude of the idolatrous pig-eating Westerners who had invaded and occupied Palestine.